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Recap: MLA Presidential Plenary on States of Insecurity

Today, I attended the presidential plenary at the MLA Convention, "States of Insecurity," moderated by Diana Taylor (New York University). We were promised a plenary that addressed how "[t]he academy functions in and contributes to the ideological, economic, and political struggles of our time. On this panel, scholars, advocates, and public intellectuals point to strategies and coalitions that might help the academy uphold its role as a place of critical and historical reflection, inquiry, and intervention." (MLA Program)

Sadly, the first speaker, Angela Davis was unable to join the panel and talk about her topic abolition, but participated via a very short video. The most important thing I took away from her video was her chastising of the MLA’s suppression of debating the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. She said that no matter one agrees with their agenda or not, it's not social justice when silencing this kind of conversation.

What a star-studded panel this was. Next up as a speaker was Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU addressing the organization’s work in the current political environment of "alternative facts" and "fake news."

His talk here at MLA was first screened by his co-workers as “off-topic” but he thought it was important to speak to the audience in the MLA not because of “the white tower.” Rather, Romero pointed out how he knows that there is a strong connection between the clients of the ACLU and many of our students.

Romero then quoted Dr. Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He added that labor is important in that bend, and also that arcs tend to snap back. That’s what we feel now. He brought up other points in history: The Palmer Raids, the anti-communist hearings of the 50s, anti-immigration and suppression of due process post-9/11 and during the years with President George W. Bush. In the light of all that 20th and early 21st century history, Romero says our time is worse. Now, the fight is on all fronts of the ACLU’s core issues. Today, Romero chose to speak specifically to immigrants' rights, voting rights, and reproductive rights.

The conversation about Trump's muslim ban and his stepping up of detention and deportation all seems to tie well into this year's convention theme (States of Insecurity) but after hearing Romero speak for some time, I felt sick and tired of hearing 45’s name over and over again. We all know too well the struggles that Romero spoke of so I won't recount them here. One resource mentioned by him is important to bring up, however: The ACLU's Trump Memos, collecting everything that 45 mentioned during his campaign.

Romero started his conclusion with a remark that "It’s a fight for our life now." He let us know that many republicans are now joining the ACLU since some feel that 45 is going too far even for a conservative agenda.

Romero's concluding note was yet hopeful: “Thinking back to the bending of the arc, it takes many hands to bend the arc. Even as we feel tired of hearing the latest news. What’s most important is that we continue to pay attention. We’ll lose some of the battles. I know that. I'm not worried about that. I’m worrying about cynicism (we can't do anything) and fatalism (things will run its course, we'll see what happens in 2020). As keepers of the mind and keepers of the word, and people who administer to students and speak to the power of the intellect, I hope we can bend the arc towards justice.”

Next up was Cathy Davidson, who turned out attention to radical pedagogy, which she also promised we'd enact in the room at the end of her talk.

To define radical pedagogy, Davidson turned to the notion of "total participation," a notion that she borrows from the American Psychological Association (see Davidson's blog post on HASTAC and from HigherEdJobs). It means to take all the skills in the room and making it part of the teaching, in order to make all students active learners. That is truly radical pedagogy. It requires a radical stance against limited regimes of testing and outcome-oriented schooling. (see her recent The Guardian op-ed)

So why is it so hard to incorporate these radical pedagogies in our classrooms? Davidson claims that it's because of how we're "schooled"—it's almost impossible to change how we teach. She turns to Audre Lorde for inspiration here: pedagogical change requires us to change our own relationship to power. Davidson adds that this is why we see so much rationalization of our own powerlessness: “Students today are so and so…” “Millennials are like so…” “Distracting laptops or technology in the classroom.” All of these expressions are examples of expressions of the opposite of radical pedagogy. What does such presumption cause us and others?

Davidson's point is that we keep furthering a schooling system built on fear of difference and passivity. Davidson quotes Fred Moten who argues that the primary objective of schooling is subjecting students to judgment.

So why don't we use more active learning? The most typical argument that Davidson encounters is that “we have to cover things” in classes. But if we are truly creative thinkers, we should ask ourselves: what is retained in our students’ lives after the class is over?

How can we eloquently critique power systems and then enact the same structures in our own classrooms? The answer is easy: We’re schooled to structural inequality. But you cannot counter structural inequality without a structure of equality. And Davidson has brought some concrete examples. Yale History Department, for instance, in their retooling of course offerings with a track for students who want to work outside of academic contexts, which made History the largest undergraduate major at Yale for the first time (beating Economics). Another example is Samuel Delany's All-Hands-Raised technique for the classroom. Every time you don’t answer a question, you learn something: to feel good about what you already know, not to ask for a raise etc… You essentially learn powerlessness. His All-Hands-Raised technique, explained by Davidson here is a way to counter these feelings of inadequacy in relation to a question.

We then turned to an inventory exercise with the audience (part of preaching what she teaches), a think-pair-share (explained here). Davidson asked us to write down on a card three ways that we can encourage better participation in a situation where we have power, next time we're in that situation. We then read off of our cards to the person we sat next to (hopefully someone we didn't know) and gave each other ideas.

Davidson ended her remarks on a note about cognition: “We learn what we need to learn. That’s how cognition works. That’s how learning works.” She had a student who used the think-pair-share technique in his classroom of 600 students, asking them: “What thing we talked about today will keep you awake tonight? If we didn’t talk about anything that will keep you awake, what should we have talked about?”

After Davidson's presentation, Juan López Intzín’s paper was summarized by Diana Taylor, since he was unable to attend the conference because of a cancelled flight following yesterday's snowstorm. I was sad that we didn't get to hear López Intzín’s speech about the thinking from the heart in our current state of insecurity but Taylor did the paper some justice, especially thanks to López Intzín’s slides. He tries to unthink the Western epistemic violence against native peoples, thinking through knowledge starting from a different place. López Intzín finds a location and permission for epistemic insurgency through sp’ijilal o’tan (Maya tseltal), knowledges/epistemologies of the heart. He spoke of bringing down colonial statues as a reaction against invasions of ancestral lands. In his writing, López Intzín goes back to ancient Mayan K'iche' documents where the universe emerged through the heart. It's all about respecting life in each other (humans and non-human and non-living entities alike). He uses the term lekil kuxlejal which stands for a good life, a just, worthy life through respect, mutuality (ich’el ta muk). The heart, Taylor remarked, becomes crucial in López Intzín’s thinking to conceptualize other and different futurities. O’tan/heart is at the center of everyday experiences and the source of our culturally situated knowledge.

Judith Butler was up next, and while I'll try to make sense of my notes here, her thoughts were complex (albeit not as complex as López Intzín's) and she lost me towards the end. Butler's remarks took as their starting point that suspension of due process and indefinite detention have increasingly become the norm. We see many more conversation about new migrants and perceived threats of terrorism (and connections being made between terrorism and migration). Security is invoked in all of this— but what kind of security, and for whom? Butler pointed out that the truly endangered in this entire logic are the lives of those incarcerated. Those who are suffering and dying, or have their souls murdered. Whose lives are being secured at the expense of them? Those who defend the security of the state, those defending national or ethnic purity?

In our current state of insecurity, we have lost track of the idea of habeas corpus, the obligation of a detaining authority to present some kind of justification. Today, it's a mind-twist, the convoluted thought that you can be detained in the name of security itself—that is, you cannot know why you’re detained for security reasons.

Butler then asked: Is justice still available if the expected legal procedure fails? The detention becomes itself the punishment here. The trial itself never comes.

In trying to "make sense" of our current situation, Butler turns to Kafka who she says, writes around power and pervades our contemporary life. She speaks of the EU refugees in detainment while petitioning for refugee status (something that's called “awaiting transfer”) but that transfer may never come. This is a state of being still “in transit,” despite having been “present” for months in a country, awaiting the “transfer.” Kafkaesque indeed.

Kafka’s K (from The Trial) does not know what time and space he lives in, as judicial structures are crumbling around him. His waiting doesn't push law to reveal its secrets. Conditions of guilt, on the part of the subject, is the only consequence. Rogues finally kills K, in the name of a state. Butler concludes that the collapse of temporal sequence is the legal violence done in Kafka's novel. The power of legal forms is that they maintain any possibility of redress.

Today, we have moved beyond Kafka’s universe. In Apartheid South Africa and in contemporary Israeli politics (modeled on South African laws), she points out, one can be put in infinitely detention (essentially disappeared) because of one's resistance to the status quo. She speaks of incarcerated folks, who were eventually released in South Africa, who wrote about writing as a form of agency inside of the prison cell.

While it was fascinating to see Butler connecting key thoughts from older books like Undoing Gender (2004), here, to Kafka, Israel, and current states of insecurity, she finally lost me in the last couple of minutes of her talk.

During the Q&A, Butler was asked whether we can consider hunger strikes as a desire to recognized in the face of the law, to be judged (invoking Hannah Arendt's thoughts). Butler's response was that when we talk about “law”—we need to ask ourselves whether we talk about an idea of law as seeking justice, something that defends us against destruction, or a series of actions with the aim to destruct rights in the name of security. We simply cannot just talk about “law.” But we can’t defend “rule of law” unconditionally either. If we defend rule of law in a racist regime, why do we do that? Hunger strikes can be regarded as the right to express, demonstrate, to compel the state, showing how it (the state) (sometimes?) is involved in a murderous process, the actual destruction of the bodies of those detained. Perhaps we can think of it, she ended the panel, as a kind of artistry, a political practice, or a political poeisis.

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